Friday, January 24, 2003


Audio collage artist Jonathan Nelson celebrates four years on the "Assembly" line.

By Rod Smith
Special to the Star Tribune

Jonathan Nelson bounces into Radio K's broadcast studio at 3:45 or so, as he does every Saturday afternoon. Plopping his heavy CD case onto the first available horizontal surface in the bunker-like facility, he pops it open and begins casually scanning spines, seemingly oblivious to the fact that "Some Assembly Required," the program he created four years ago, is just about to begin.

The discs in Nelson's case all have one thing in common. They're by artists who specialize in "plunderphonics," a form of sound collage that draws heavily on sounds appropriated from the media environment -- everything from current pop hits and commercials to old exercise records and political speeches -- cut into little pieces and reassembled as new compositions.

It's a decidedly underground style of sound art, but one that enjoys a healthy following. "Some Assembly Required," which celebrates its fourth anniversary Saturday with a new 2 p.m. start time, is the only syndicated program on KUOM (770 AM), with weekly airings on stations in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ontario and Alaska.

Nelson doesn't confine his plunderphonic activities to DJ-ing; he's an active and respected sound collage artist who enjoys a rising profile in the international plunderphonic community. In 2001, Nelson, who records as Escape Mechanism, joined fellow plunderphonic poobahs Steev Hise, the Tape-beatles and Wobbly -- all of whom were in the Twin Cities to present their work at the Sound Unseen festival -- in an all-star supersession of sorts.

The resulting document, "Minneapolis Summit: October 2001," recently released on the prestigious Staalplaat label, provides a fascinating glimpse into Nelson's audio aesthetic, as well as demonstrating what sets him apart from most of his peers.

His comrades in (tone)arms at the session deploy an array of samples filched from all over the musical spectrum and beyond. But Nelson digs in with one double LP: "Nightbird and Company: Cosmic Connections," a collection of interviews with rock artists produced by the U.S. military in the 1970s.

Rather than simply dropping random chunks of dialogue, he reconfigures the material on the fly, creating a new narrative that's probably much funnier than the original. His thoughtful and deliberate manipulation of his source material also imparts a sense of coherence and continuity to what otherwise might come off as just another exercise in spazzy samplemania.

Dream Catcher
Nelson didn't come by his formidable skills overnight. He's been experimenting with sound collage for more than a decade, since his high-school days, when he did everything with a pair of cassette decks and plundered his dad's record collection for source material.

"Most people who do this kind of stuff think they invented it," he observes. "I was no exception."

Exposure to Art of Noise and, later, Negativland, tipped him off to the fact that he wasn't alone -- and goaded him into working harder. But it wasn't until Nelson got online, in 1995 or so, that he became fully aware of the burgeoning plunderphonic scene. He started corresponding with the cadre of kindred spirits scattered across the globe, and in 1999 released Escape Mechanism's self-titled debut CD.

It was Surrealism, particularly the Surrealist preoccupation with dreams, that provided the impetus for Nelson's interest in sound collage as well as his use of sonic materials appropriated from the media wasteland.

"I wanted to create dreamlike states with sound," he said. "I could have done it for myself using all original material, but I wanted to be able to evoke similar feelings for others. I figured the best way to do that was to layer and juxtapose stuff from extant media sources."

His Surrealist impulses aren't limited to sonic art. Nelson, who holds a BA from the University of Minnesota, is an accomplished visual artist as well. Not surprisingly, his work -- collage and three-dimensional assemblages -- uses appropriated materials. It, too, is dream-driven, particularly by the recurring dreams of old movie theaters that are manifested most eloquently in his wistful assemblages.

As with his sound-art endeavors, Nelson plays the presenter effectively in the visual realm. His Web site ( offers access to a wealth of material by and about like-minded individuals all over the world. And his "Festival of Appropriation," a monthlong group exhibition of collage and assemblage, will celebrate its fifth anniversary later this year at the Rogue Buddha gallery in Minneapolis.

Despite his myriad activities, Nelson doesn't make a living as an artist; his job as a construction worker pays the bills. This doesn't seem to daunt him in the least, though. And it certainly isn't slowing his artistic output: He plans to exhibit a series of sound/art installations later this year. A second full-length Escape Mechanism CD is in the works as well.

As he puts it, "With all the media junk around me, I've already got enough material to keep me busy for the rest of my life."

-- Rod Smith is a Minneapolis writer.

Some Assembly Required

What: Fourth anniversary of Jonathan Nelson's Radio K showcase of "tape manipulations, digital deconstructions and turntable creations."

When: 2-3 p.m. Sat.

Where: 770 AM or

Soundbite: To hear a sample of Nelson’s latest CD as Escape Mechanism, go to: or phone 612-673-9050 and, when prompted, press 5412.

Web sites: